Gym culture has changed for the better… and the worse

I started going to the gym in 2010 and, at the risk of sounding like an old lady, things were different back then. The gym I attended was split into two floors – weights room down the bottom, cardio equipment like treadmills and exercycles up the top. In practice that meant that guys went downstairs and gals went upstairs.

I was too scared to go into the weights room initially. I had no idea what I was doing and was perpetually afraid of embarrassing myself. Thanks to a free stint at a commerical gym with a passionate flatmate who worked there, and many YouTube videos, I got a bit of confidence and started going into the weights room regularly.

And what I found was that I needn’t have been afraid in the slightest. The lads in the weights room were welcoming, accepting and always willing to help their fellow gym goers out. The easiest way to describe it is this: every time I did bench presses, I’d ask a random person to spot me and they’d say, “Yeah, of course” and we’d chit chat. Everyone smiled at each other.

People – mainly dudes – who worked out using heavy weights were pretty much a niche group back then. They were athletes and hardcore guys who lived and breathed trying to get as strong as possible. While they looked intimidating to outsiders, with their huge weights belts on, chalked up hands and mighty grunts while lifting, they were, in my experience, a sweet bunch. They had their own unspoken code of conduct that I quickly figured out: everyone put their weights away neatly when they were finished with them, the squat rack was for squats only, if someone asked you to spot them you always did it willingly, and you were polite and welcoming to all. Except the New Years Resolution influx in January. Everyone hated them and breathed a sigh of relief in February when they inevitably stopped coming. Most interestingly I think, hardly anyone wore headphones back then because they all talked to each other.

Looking around my gym in 2021, it’s a different story. On the plus side, there are people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds giving things a go. Women and newbies don’t seem to be afraid to work out with weights, and the “If girls lift heavy they’ll get big” myth my female friends used to parrot isn’t really a thing anymore.

But the ettique is gone, too. People do bicep curls in the squat rack. Weights are stacked so hapharzadly that I often find myself lifting multiple 20kg plates off a bar to get to the small 5kg plate that’s behind it. The machine weights are always busy but many people lifting freeweights clearly have no idea what good technique looks like. The room is packed but everyone is wearing headphones. There’s no sense of camraderie anymore.

I’m sure there are many great people that go to to my gym but I’ll probably never talk to them, because they have their Beats on and I have Airpods in. Somehow the social connection side of going to the gym has been lost. And it’s a real shame. Social connections are hella important. And not just having close friends and family you can talk to, but those everyday chit chats you have with your barista, the checkout operator at the supermarket, etc. It’s that feeling you have that people know who you are and they’d wonder about you if you didn’t show up. Some really interesting research has come to the conclusion that these social connections are the single most important factor for a long and happy life. It’s like the theme song from that old TV show, Cheers: “You want to go where everybody knows your name.” I still enjoy the gym but it’s morphed into something different for me: I treat it more as me-time now and I don’t expect to chat with anyone when I go. But sometimes I miss the good old days.

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